Eagerly-anticipated Open set to get under way in the shadow of Covid-19

It has been a long time coming, but the wait is finally over.

Seven hundred and twenty five days after Shane Lowry won the 148th Open at Royal Portrush, the 149th edition of golf’s oldest major championship finally takes place over the next four eagerly-awaited days at Royal St George’s.

While the Masters, US PGA Championship and US Open overcame the sizeable difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic by moving from their traditional places in the golfing calendar to November, August and September respectively, the Open was cancelled on April 6 last year.

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R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers rightly pointed out that staging the Open would place unreasonable demands on the emergency services and local authorities at a time when they had far more pressing issues to handle.

And while a lack of daylight later in the year effectively ruled out a change of date, the fact that the R&A – like the organisers of Wimbledon – were covered by global pandemic insurance made the decision to cancel far more palatable.

“After such a difficult time in the last year or so for the whole world, I have to admit we are relieved, thrilled, and a little bit emotional, I suppose, in being able to get to stage the Open once again,” Slumbers said on Wednesday.

“It has been quite a challenge being able to get to this point and we’re under no illusions of the complexity of the problems that are caused by the pandemic, specifically when you’re trying to stage a global sporting event with players from 27 different countries and bringing them all into the country.”

Martin Slumbers
Martin Slumbers (David Davies/PA)

To make that possible, the championship is operating under “strict government oversight”, with guidelines banning players from going to bars, restaurants and supermarkets.

And Slumbers concedes it is “probably inevitable” that such strict protocols will result in issues, with players at risk of disqualification for breaching the rules.

A total of 13 players withdrew from the Open before the start of play and although not all were Covid-related, reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama and two-time winner Bubba Watson tested positive, as did 2015 Open champion Zach Johnson.

“At the end of the day, what counts is that we’ll have 156 of the world’s best men players teeing off and on Sunday we will present the Claret Jug to the next champion golfer of the year,” Slumbers added.

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy on the ninth tee during a practice round at Royal St George’s (Richard Sellers/PA)

A statistical quirk means that none of the world’s current top 10 have won the Open – 2014 winner Rory McIlroy is ranked 11th – while Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Scottie Scheffler are inside the top 20 as they make their Open debuts.

World number two Jon Rahm is a strong favourite to become the first player since Jordan Spieth in 2015 to win back-to-back major titles following his US Open triumph at Torrey Pines, but it is worth noting that the last two Open winners at Sandwich were ranked 369th and 111th at the time.

In 2003, Tiger Woods came into the event having won six of the last 14 majors and four times that season, but teed off in strong winds on Thursday, lost a ball on the first hole to run up a triple-bogey seven and eventually finished two shots behind shock winner Ben Curtis.

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Darren Clarke’s victory in 2011 was less dramatic in the closing stages as challengers Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson faltered, but was remarkable for the way the 42-year-old triumphed following 20 years of trying and after starting the week despairing about his putting.

Putting might be the least of anyone’s worries at a venue where Bryson DeChambeau labelled the rough “pretty diabolical hay” and the undulating fairways which can kick well-struck shots into that rough mean the course is far from universally popular.

But come Sunday evening there will be one player with no cause to bemoan any bad bounces or untimely gusts of wind as they take possession of the Claret Jug for the next 12 months – or possibly longer.